Local memories

Very few Thais worked on the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway but there are many memories of the wartime period in the town of Kanchanaburi.

The precinct of 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' is full of memorials and market stalls selling memorabilia of the Burma-Thailand railway. Shop fronts and rickshaws carry images of the bridge and wartime locomotives and rolling stock sit in the road running alongside the train track. The bridge itself is the site of a Sound & Light Show each November which remembers the major Allied bombing raid of November 1944.

The World War II and JEATH Museum, located fifty metres from the bridge on Maenamkwai Road, was created by a local businessman Prythong Chansiri in memory of his father who died during the Allied bombing. Using the horrors of war to make a case for peace, this remarkable museum combines Thai history and art with an eclectic collection of war weapons and memorabilia.

One gallery contains a glass case with the bones of 106 rǒmusha exhumed from a nearby mass grave in the 1990s. Other rooms contain graphic dioramas of POWs bloodied in the bombing of the bridge, trapped in cattle trucks or working on the railway. Murals and ceiling paintings also depict life in POW camps and aircraft flying overhead. Reconstructed remains of the wooden bridge built by British prisoners in 1942-43 can be seen from the museum.

Immediately next to the museum is the memorial built by the Japanese in February–March 1944. Taking the form of an obelisk flanked by panels in the languages of those worked and died on the railway, the memorial is immaculately kept by the local community. The local Japanese community hold a memorial ceremony here each March. On the main memorial can still be seen the scars of the wartime bombing.

Further downstream near the junction of the Kwae Yai and Mae Khlong rivers is another JEATH (Japan–England–Australia–Thailand–Holland) Museum. Managed by a Buddhist temple, Wat Chaichumpol, the museum was created in 1977 to provide information about the railway for early tourists. Taking the form of a POW hut, with bamboo platforms on either side of a long aisle, it houses POW accounts, paintings, newspaper cuttings and objects donated by the local community who during the war traded food for watches, forks and spoons.

Many of these exhibits are showing damage from exposure to the Thai climate. Near the museum's entrance is a display of faded letters and photographs of POWs and their families who have visited the museum over the years.

Like Chansiri's museum, the JEATH Museum is focused on reconciliation. 'Forgive but not Forget' is the message at its main entrance. Affirming this is a statue of a Japanese interpreter Nagase Takashi (Fujiwara) positioned at the river entrance to the museum. A witness to the brutality on the Burma-Thailand railway during the war, Nagase Takashi devoted his later life to reconciliation and peace. In 1976 he organised a reunion of ex-POWs and ex-Japanese officers and soldiers in Kanchanaburi. Later he built peace temples at Three Pagodas Pass (on the Thai–Myanmar border) and in Kanchanaburi (on Kwaiyai Road). His River Kwai Peace Foundation has provided thousands of scholarships to disadvantaged students in Kanchanaburi.

Further evidence of shared memory of the war is the house of Nai Boonpong Sirivejabhandu which survives in the old sector of the town at 96 Pak Prak Road. During the war Boonpong was contracted to supply goods to the Japanese workforce. With access to the POW camps as far north as Tha Khanun he worked secretly with an underground organisation in Bangkok to smuggle medicines, food and even radio parts to the POWs, including 'Weary' Dunlop.

After the war Boonpong was awarded medals by the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. In 1980s Australians established a medical exchange scheme, bearing his name and that of Dunlop, to enable Thai surgeons to study in Australia.

Also in Pak Prak Road (no. 165-67, identified by a yellow heritage sign), is the house used during the war as the local Japanese Headquarters.

Kanchanaburi also houses a memorial to the rǒmusha, the countless Asian workers whose suffering has often been forgotten in the history of the Burma-Thailand railway. A plain white column bearing inscriptions in Chinese, the memorial is located at the back of the so-called Chinese cemetery, just a short way along Saeng Chuto Road from the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. According to local sources, in 1948 the temple monks and local people found the remains of some 4500 bodies nearby. The memorial is currently maintained by the nearby temple whose dogs are among its few visitors.

Last updated: 6 March 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Local memories, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 18 September 2021, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/burma-thailand-railway-and-hellfire-pass-1942-1943/locations/remembering-railway/local-memories
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